After backpacking around Peru Natalie Chalk is hooked but finds teaching English in Lima to be full of surprises.
The early mornings are an extraordinary time of day in Lima
ON MY first day in Lima, I woke to the sound of beeping horns, droning engines and men shouting in the street below.
From my window I could see swirls of thick black smog pumping out from the colourful old combis – mini-buses that were lining up to collect passengers.
It was rush hour and there were dozens of these combis jamming the avenue, the drivers shouting over each other, encouraging passengers to get on their buses.
I went to Lima a year ago to teach English in a British language institute where I learnt some difficult lessons within my first few months.
I had previously backpacked around Peru and seen Machu Picchu, the Amazon, the Nazca Lines, Lake Titicaca, the long sandy beaches and Arequipa’s two canyons, the deepest in the world.
I was returning for more but this time to work rather than travel and was unsure what to expect as a resident of Peru’s capital.
At the end of the first month teaching I was called to the office of my language centre and reprimanded for having too many students who had failed the cycle and was told to alter their scores.
It was explained to me that if too many students failed in one class they wouldn’t pay to repeat the cycle and the school would lose money. I took it badly and felt like I was there simply to administer English courses, not to teach them.
But I was in a different world and it certainly explained why so many students in my advanced group were there without advanced English – they were simply being moved along a conveyor belt.
But English is big business in Peru and students are keen to learn with the busiest times of day for classes at 7am and between 6pm and 9pm, before and after work.
The early mornings are an extraordinary time of day in Lima. Some days I woke to the smell of rotten fish in my apartment, which I thought at first came from my bins.
But the smell continued outside and carried all the way to the school. When I walked in to my class all the students were covering their noses and explained that along the coast was a fish powder factory and depending on the direction of the wind the putrid odour travels all over Lima.
Other mornings I found the buses would be on a diversion because parts of the road were on fire- but fires controlled by marshals.
No one could tell me why this took place and by the time I returned home for lunch it was as if nothing had happened; the traffic would be teeming along as normal.
It was as if there was another Lima only witnessed in the early hours and I sometimes wondered if it really occurred or if I had dreamt it.
When summer begins in October, it’s hot but not so humid that you can’t escape from the heat indoors. It was easy to become a morning person sitting in cafes preparing classes with the warm sun on my back and spending lazy afternoons doing my Spanish homework.
My students surprised me with their concern for my safety in Lima. They told me of their personal experiences of being robbed and mugged on the streets, especially for their clothes – some had been stripped and left to walk home with no shoes or trousers.
They advised me not to use public transport, or to walk alone. They said I must never carry a bag or wear too much jewellery – unless it was pearls as they had bad karma.
If anyone asked for the time, I was to say I didn’t know because this was just a ploy for the person to glimpse my watch before deciding whether to steal it. I wasn’t to speak to anyone. I had to hide my mobile phone. And the list went on.
I never felt in any danger where I was living but after hearing this I was terrified, thinking it was only a matter of time before I was mugged. But I came to no harm at all.
I soon realised that every Peruvian I met had an overwhelmingly negative opinion of their country because of its history of dictatorships, poverty and the memory that over a decade ago terrorism was rife.
My anxiety waned when I understood where my students were coming from. They couldn’t understand the appeal Peru had for me.
On the face of it, Lima isn’t architecturally stunning but it’s not completely without modern buildings or the ubiquitous McDonalds. There aren’t lots of museums or attractions, but then it’s not a tourist city, it’s a working city with street kids playing and begging for money.
There’s little glitz or glamour but Lima has the beauty of a highland woman: the sun cracked face and wrinkles show there’s a great strength of character.